by Greg Burgess



Ric and Ron records were the creation of Joe Ruffino, a tough-operating Italian-American brought up in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  The labels ran for a little over four years, from 1958 to Ruffino’s death from a heart attack in 1963 and, for lovers of NOLA r&b, are a trove of delights that are the equal of those found on larger Big Easy labels such as Ace, Imperial, Minit, Watch and Instant.  Ruffino’s intention was to create a distinctive brand of rhythm and blues and, to achieve this, he set about recruiting for his enterprise the best young performers and producers that were available.  The Ric and Ron labels provided Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, Robert Parker, Warren Lee and Al ‘Carnival Time’ Johnson with debut appearances on wax.  They also offered new opportunities to stalwarts of NOLA r&b such as Tommy Ridgley, Chris Kenner, Eddie Bo and Professor Longhair.  Ruffino also used up-and-coming producers and arrangers that included Eddie Bo, Hershell E. Dwellingham and Harold Battiste.  

 

Joe Ruffino, the son of Italian immigrants, was a New Orleans native born in 1920.  His father was a small businessman who ran a bakery and grocery catering for other Italian immigrants.  The Italian community was entrepreneurial and the burgeoning music industry that flourished in New Orleans after the Second World War provided the opportunities that many sought.  The Italian music connection in New Orleans was to include not just Ruffino but other players such as Joe Mancuso, Joe Caronna, Joe Assunto, Johnny Vincent (born John Vincent Imbragulio) - the owner of Ace records - and Cosimo Matassa, whose studios in the French Quarter were the premier recording facilities in New Orleans from 1945 to 1972.  Joe Ruffino was constantly seeking to improve himself.  In addition to working in the family business, by the mid-1950s he was running a theatre and a record shop on North Rampart Street, an area of huge musical heritage - Professor Longhair’s anthem, ‘Mardi Gras In New Orleans’ specifically mentions Rampart Street - near to Matassa’s studios.  During this period he met Johnny Vincent with whom he set up Record Sales, a distribution company in which Vincent owned seventy percent, Ruffino twenty percent and Joe’s brother-in-law. Joe Coronna. the remaining ten percent.  Vincent claimed many years later that as many as fifteen thousand records a month were unaccounted for and that he suspected Ruffino was responsible.  The partnership was subsequently dissolved amicably, with Vincent agreeing to support Ruffino by paying for the initial recording sessions for the newly created Ric records, named after Ruffino’s son.  The label initially operated from Lakewood Street, relocating shortly thereafter to Baronne Street.  By early 1959, Ruffino had decided to start a sister label, Ron Records, named after another son.  The original thought was to use the Ron label for masters bought-in or leased from other companies but, within a short period, local talent was also being assigned to the label.

 

Vincent went as far as providing the initial masters by Edgar Blanchard and Mercy Baby for the inaugural Ric pressings.  In view of Ruffino’s stated aim to create a new sound, the recruitment of the veteran guitarist Edgar Blanchard as an arranger seems surprising but Blanchard and his band, the Gondoliers, were popular purveyors of a less orthodox lighter r&b/pop sound that was increasingly popular amongst young black and white youth.  Blanchard and his crew seemed to have rarely worked mainstream New Orleans, earning a living in the clubs of the South that included Don Robey’s Peacock club in Houston and the new soul clubs in Mobile, AL.  Blanchard rarely cut records in his own name but his guitar playing is featured on many Big Easy waxings, including those by Bobby Charles, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry and Eddie Bo.  Blanchard, whose own output does include records for Peacock, Argo (Chess) and Specialty and a long stint as bandleader for Roy Brown, supervised all the early Ric sessions, before giving way to another ex-Specialty artist, Harold Battiste.  While associated with Ric, Blanchard appeared just twice as an artist in his own right.  The first, which inaugurated the label, was ‘Let’s Get It’ c/w ‘Lonesome Guitar’ (Ric 954), issued in 1958 and the aforementioned gift of Johnny Vincent.  Illustrative of Blanchard’s tougher style, it was followed swiftly by a Gondoliers 45, ‘Knocked Out’ c/w ‘You Call Everybody Darling’ (Ric 957).  Ruffino agreed to release a rare Ric album, ‘Let’s Have A Blast’ on Blanchard and the Gondoliers.  (I have not been able to locate a copy but reviews are not flattering.)  The Grosse Tete-born Louisianan, Blanchard died in New Orleans of cirrhosis in 1972, at the age of fifty-two.  His two Ric cuts have been released on cd several times in recent years and a couple of unissued Ric instrumentals, ‘Blues Cha Cha’ and ‘Bopsody In Blues’ appeared on a Rounder Records’ compilation, ‘Troubles’, in the late 1980s.

 

Ruffino was shrewd enough to hire the up-and-coming songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie (or La Bostrie) to provide songs for new recording artists, Irma Thomas and Johnny Adams.  LaBostrie, who was born in Rayland, KY in 1928, had moved to New Orleans (from where her Creole father originated) in 1951 and, by the mid-’50s, was working for Bumps Blackwell’s Specialty imprimatur.  In September 1955, she penned the song for Little Richard for which he is known, ‘Tutti Frutti’.  She also wrote ‘Rich Woman’ about the same time, a song since covered by many artists, including most recently by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.  Her professional relationship with Blackwell collapsed in 1958, allowing Ruffino to swoop.  It proved a major signing, as LaBostrie provided two prime songs for the label, the ribald ‘(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don’t Mess With My Man’ (Ron 328), cut by a sixteen-year-old Irma Thomas and an early Johnny Adams labour, ‘I Won’t Cry’ (Ric 961).  The latter record, a huge local hit, was produced by a young man learning his trade at Ric, Mac Rebennack, who was to become the much admired Dr John.  It is his distinctive languid piano which provides the backdrop to which Adams adds the perfect vocal.  LaBostrie’s involvement with Ric was brief as she fell out with Ruffino over the old chestnut, royalty payments.  His name is also listed as a writer, a common practice at the time but barely ethical.  LaBostrie claimed that she was paid virtually nothing for ‘I Won’t Cry’ and, as a consequence, she severed her connection with the label but not before she had left a stash of songs in the Ric vaults.  She then signed a songwriting contract with Matassa’s White Cliffs publishing company but none had the commercial success of her earlier songs.  She subsequently left the music industry behind to raise a family, moving to New York around 1970.  She died in Georgia in 2007.

 

Johnny Adams provided Ruffino with his first major success beyond the boundaries of New Orleans, as the glorious ‘I Won’t Cry’ scored heavily across the south-eastern states.  Adams came from the thriving gospel music scene in New Orleans and had been a member of the Soul Revivers and recorded briefly with Specialty as a member of Bessie Griffin & the Consolators.  ‘I Won’t Cry’ was his first venture into the secular marketplace and would surely have been a huge hit throughout the US had Ruffino chosen to lease the record to a national label.  This was to prove a recurring issue and eventually would result in the curtailment of a meaningful New Orleans r&b record industry.  Although the record was picked up by Ember for wider distribution, by that time it had lost momentum and failed to score on the national charts.  Subsequently becoming a staple of Adams’ repertoire, ‘I Won’t Cry’ was acquired by Shelby Singleton’s SSS International Records, where it was reworked, finally charting nationally in the summer of 1970.  The original New Orleans cut was featured on an lp of Ric material issued by SSS International in 1971.  Dubbed ‘The Tan Canary’, Johnny Adams would become the mainstay of the Ric label, with eleven releases.  A few are dull, uninspiring pop but there are gems such as ‘Come On’ (Ric 963, 1959), ‘Someone For Me’ (Ric 971, 1960), ‘Life Is A Struggle’ (Ric 983, 1961) and ‘A Losing Battle’ (Ric 986, 1962), written by Mac Rebennack and which became Adams’ first national hit (#27 r&b).  (Those wishing to collect his Ric releases should be aware that, for two outings, he was billed as John Adams.)  Johnny Adams’ relationship with Joe Ruffino had soured badly by the time of the latter’s death.  The cause of their differences is disputed but seemingly concerned the increasingly fractious involvement of Joe Jones.  In late 1962 or early ’63, a group of New Orleans musicians including Jones, Adams, Chris Kenner, Esquerita, Earl King, Wardell Quezergue and drummer, Smokey Johnson travelled to Detroit at Clarence Paul’s invitation, to audition for Motown.  Berry Gordy liked what he heard and arranged for a number of recording sessions to take place.  It is known that sessions with Earl King were recorded in August and September 1963 - finally being issued on the superb ‘Motown Blue Evolution’ compilation in 1996 - and probably with Chris Kenner.  King later claimed that Adams was in the studio with Mickey Stephenson when news came through that Ruffino was threatening to sue if Gordy recorded Adams.  It is intriguing to speculate as to whether anything was actually laid down but Motown withdrew their interest rather than risk a legal dispute.  The confusion of facts arises from King subsequently blaming Joe Jones, who was acting as producer, for demanding too much money.  In the end, a bitter and frustrated Adams stayed with Ric Records until its closure.  Adams’ contract transferred to Watch records on Ruffino’s demise.  Watch, which was founded in late 1963, was owned and run by Ruffino’s brother-in-law, Joe Assunto and by the owner of All-South Distributing Corporation, Henry Hildebrand.  In spite of a quality roster of artists and producers including Quezergue, King, Benny Spellman, Professor Longhair and Adams, Watch struggled for distribution beyond New Orleans, probably as a result its failure to overcome the post-payola problem of getting satisfactory national airplay.  Nevertheless, it was at Watch that Adams cut two of his most enduring records, the Quezergue-produced ‘Part Of Me’ and ‘Release Me’.  The latter had been written and recorded by country singer, Eddie Miller in 1953 and had become a country standard.  Although revived by [Little] Esther Phillips in 1962, it seems to have been a version issued on Capitol in 1967 by Londoner, Matt Monro that inspired Adams to record the song.  (Monro was very popular in the US at the time and had toured throughout the country, including New Orleans.)  Adams label-hopped for the next few years, cutting records for Pacemaker in Houston, Gone for Eddie Bo, Scram and Smash, whilst still under contract to Watch.  To supplement his income, he worked at Assunto’s record shop, from where Ron 45s were also issued and sold.  In 1968, his contract was acquired by the Nashville based SSS International, with which he was to enjoy a fruitful relationship.  Johnny Adams is rightly regarded by many as one of the greatest of soul singers yet, nationally, he appeared just six times on the r&b charts and only once since 1970.

 

The honour of cutting Ric’s first in-house record belongs to Al Johnson and ‘You Done Me Wrong’ c/w ‘Lena’ (Ric 956) but it is for his second and final Ric outing, ‘Carnival Time’ (#967) for which he is better known.  Since it appeared in 1960, ‘Carnival Time’ has been considered a Mardi Gras anthem, the embodiment of NOLA rhythm & blues.  Johnson, who has for many years been billed as Al ‘Carnival Time’ Johnson (and not to be confused with Al Johnson, the late singer, songwriter, producer and sometime leader of the Unifics) is ambivalent about its success...  “Sometimes I wish that I had never cut ‘Carnival Time’.  I made a record so people would be happy but it seems like it brought me nothing but a lot of problems.  The situation soured me towards the music business and I’ve never felt comfortable pursuing music as a career.”  Although his view may have relented since he made that statement, with a number of self produced cds in recent years, this rather sad indictment explains the paucity of recorded material from that era by Johnson, who was born within the city limits on June 20, 1939.  The root cause of his disenchantment arose from the contract he signed with Ruffino in 1958 or, more particularly, the lack of a contract with Ron Publishing, Ruffino’s publishing arm.  ‘Lena’ sold well in New Orleans but, when Johnson requested some financial rewards, he was told by Ruffino that he actually owed money to him.  It augured badly and so it was to transpire with the success of the next release.  ‘Carnival Time’ was recorded in December 1959 and released just before Mardi Gras in February 1960.  It features Rebennack on piano and James Rivers on saxophone.  The unfortunate Johnson was not around to promote his record, having been drafted into the US Army and stationed in Texas and, when he returned to New Orleans in 1964, the Big Easy record industry was in terminal decline as payola, the British invasion and a lack of any major record distributors had undermined the situation.  There was no work for Johnson in the industry and he spent the next decade working as a cabbie.  In 1976, ‘Carnival Time’ was reissued on an lp called ‘Mardi Gras In New Orleans’, reviving interest in the song and the singer.  What followed for Johnson was years of litigation, as he tried to get royalties for his song.  In 1984, Joe Jones acquired the rights for Ron Publishing and Rounder Records purchased the reissue rights for the Ric and Ron recordings.  As all sides sued and countersued each other, the litigation was not sorted until 1999, when Johnson finally got the rights to ‘Carnival Time’ nearly forty years after he had recorded it for the long gone Joe Ruffino.

 

The ninth release by the Ric label was Eddie Bo’s ‘Hey There Baby’ c/w ‘I Need Someone’ (# 962), the first of eight 45s issued.  He was born Edwin Joseph Bocage, year uncertain - an in-depth feature by Frederic Adrian appears in ‘In The Basement’ #57 and Bo remains evasive about his actual age - into a musical family with a deep grounding in the jazz scene of New Orleans.  After a spell in the US Army, he attended Grunewald Music School as part of a demobilisation agreement with the authorities.  Throughout the late ’50s he appeared at famous clubs such as the Tijuana, the Caldonia and, of course, the Dew Drop Inn, the venue at one time for just about every major rhythm & blues artist.  His first records were cut for Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records but did little of note.  It was only after Ace signed a distribution agreement with the New York-based Apollo label and released ‘I Got The Blues For You’ that Bo’s career took off beyond New Orleans.  The record sold well across the South - and even better when Little Richard re-recorded it as ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’.  The unscrupulous Johnny Vincent decided to cash in on Bo’s success by issuing ‘We Like Mambo’, actually a labour by Huey Smith but issued as by Eddie Bo, in spite of the salient fact that the latter was not at all involved.  The somewhat disingenuous Bo recalled that:  “I got a lot of calls for work off that record, I felt bad for Huey but what could I do?  People asked for ‘We Like Mambo’, so I started doing it on my shows.”  After five 45s on Apollo, Bo signed a contract with Chess Records, where the initial release was ‘My Dearest Darling’, soon to be taken to huge success by Etta James.  It was at this time that he started to wear his trademark turban when performing.  (It was hardly a calculating change of image, as he had set fire to his abundant hair trying to straighten it!)  His decision in 1959 to sign with Ruffino’s label was something of a coup for Ruffino.  The deal allowed Eddie a great deal of control, not only as a recording artist but also as an arranger, producer, talent scout and studio manager.  He even had his own studio next to Ruffino’s office, where he wrote his own material.  His first Ric 45, ‘Hey There Baby’ c/w ‘I Need Someone’ (# 962) was excellent, featuring Robert Parker on saxophone and Walter Lastie on drums.  This was followed by ‘You Got Your Mojo Working’, an answer record of course to Muddy Waters’ ‘Got My Mojo Working’ and then came the epitome of a New Orleans dance record, ‘Tell It Like It Is’ c/w ‘Every Dog Got His Day’ (Ric 968).  In the March of 1961, Bo released ‘It Must Be Love’, a cut featuring the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra that found its way to Capitol for national distribution.  Ironically, Eddie Bo’s biggest selling Ric single was also one of his least creative: ‘Check Mr Popeye, pt.1’ c/w ‘Now Let’s Popeye, pt.2’ (Ric 987) hung its hat on the popular Popeye dance fad.  It sold in excess of twenty-five thousand records in New Orleans, sparking a slew of Popeye records in New Orleans and beyond.  Ruffino should surely have tried to get the record distributed nationally quicker than actually happened as, when it finally made it to the Philadelphia-based Swan label, it was largely a spent force.  Yet again - and there is a pattern evident - Ruffino’s relationship with a major label artist was to sour over the lack of royalty payments.  In the end they argued so badly that Bo threatened to shoot Ruffino and, following the release of ‘Roaman-Itis’ (Ric 989), all contact between the two men was severed, with Bo by now committed to Islam and adamant that he would never work for a white man again.  He kept to his word for a few years, cutting some fine sides for a bewildering slew of record labels that included AFO, Cinderella, RIP, Arrow and  Blue Jay.  Finally, in 1966, he reached an agreement with Joe Banashak to become in-house writer and arranger for Seven B.  Most of his Ric material has appeared on reissue labels in recent years but Bo is crying out for a systematic compilation to cover this prolific period.  (The Spanish VampiSoul label’s 2009 compilation, ‘In The Pocket With Eddie Bo’ captures most of the Seven B material and is thoroughly recommended.)

 

Ric’s most successful record nationally was Joe Jones’ ‘You Talk Too Much’ in late 1960.  It was a huge success, reaching #9 on the ‘Billboard’ r&b chart and crossing over to as high a position as #3 on the national pop ‘Hot 100’.  However, after just three weeks billed as Ric 972, it ceded to Roulette 4304.  Unfortunately for Ruffino, he lost the rights following a bitter dispute with Roulette Records.  Joe Jones was a veteran of the New Orleans music scene, cutting first for Capitol as far back as 1954, before recording for a number of labels including Herald and in 1958 for Roulette, where a session included an early version of ‘You Talk Too Much’.  According to Clarence Ford, who played sax on the Ric session, Jones had touted ‘You Talk Too Much’ to at least three other companies before Ric issued their version, produced by their new a&r man, Harold Battiste.  It was an almost instant success and Battiste set about trying to break the record nationally, travelling to New York.  When Battiste arrived in the Big Apple he

discovered that the ever-shrewd Joe Jones had already primed other major labels in New York and Detroit and the record was starting to break in the north.  At this point, an irate Roulette Records pointed out that they held the publishing rights.  They reissued the 1958 version languishing in their vaults and threatened Ruffino with major trouble if he did not withdraw the Ric version immediately.  Ruffino flew to New York to negotiate but this proved a catastrophic mistake.  According to Battiste, Roulette “...got Joe Ruffino’s throat there...boy I was scared to death...Phil Kahl and those cats.  That’s the Mafia.”  Roulette went as far as to send Joe Robinson - Roulette’s Morris Levy would later put up funding for Joe and Sylvia Robinson’s All Platinum Records’ set-up - to the place that Battiste and Jones were staying, to make them an offer that would be hard to refuse.  This involved plying Jones with fine hospitality, including pandering to his weakness for young women, while Battiste claims he felt so intimidated that he hightailed it back to New Orleans.  Joe Jones confirmed in 1975 that Ruffino got nothing from the record.  The consequence was that there existed two Roulette versions of the song with the same catalogue number, the original 1958 version giving way to the familiar and decidedly more upbeat 1960 version.  (There is no way of knowing if you have a rare Roulette 1958 version without playing it!)

 

The ‘You Talk Too Much’ fiasco took its toll on Ruffino, who was in declining health.  He was left to retaliate by cutting an answer record by Martha Nelson, ‘I Don’t Talk Too Much’ (Ric 975).  Martha Nelson was from the city’s Ninth Ward who had honed her powerful vocals in gospel and jazz music.  She arrived at Ric and Ron records in 1960, courtesy of an introduction from Eddie Bo.  She sang back-up on Bo’s ‘Ain’t That The Truth’ (Ric 974) and, shortly thereafter, cut the first of four 45s, three as Martha Carter - her married name - for Ron and the aforementioned ‘I Don’t Talk Too Much’ on Ric.  Whilst it is decent enough as an answer record, it lacked any originality and failed to sell.  Her first Ron single as Martha Carter (#336), from 1960, consisted of two Bo compositions, ‘Nobody Knows’, a fairly straight-ahead pop/r&b number, backed by an equally conventional midtempo ballad, ‘I’m Through Crying’, which was the side that got airplay.  The single sold well in New Orleans, creating a demand for Nelson to perform live, often as support to Eddie Bo.  The next release contained two fine sides: ‘You Can If You Think You Can’, written by Harold Battiste and ‘One Man’s Woman’ by Bo.  Her final release in 1962 was the gospel-inflected ‘Then I’ll Believe’ (Ron 346), another Eddie Bo composition.  Carter retired from singing following an unsuccessful throat operation on her vocal cords that altered her voice.

 

At the time of his arrival at Ric records in 1960, Tommy Ridgley was already a successfully established part of the New Orleans scene.  He was a long-standing recording artist and bandleader, a position for which he held a residency at the Auditorium.  His output of seven 45s for Ric was outstanding and highlights in a long career based entirely in the Big Easy, yet Ridgley did not recall his tenure at Ric with any fondness.  He felt that the company was too small and unambitious and that they failed to market his records with any confidence.  He was born, Thomas Herman Ridgley Jr., on October 30, 1925, one of seventeen children - his youngest brother, Sammy Ridgley, was also a recording artist - and he grew up in the Shrewsbury area of New Orleans, giving rise to his early nickname, ‘The Shrewsbury Kid’.  Ridgley served in the US Navy during the Second World War and, on returning to New Orleans, like Eddie Bo he studied music under the GI Bill at the Grunewald School.  He cut his first record in 1949 for Dave Bartholomew’s new Imperial label.  A competent, sometimes gifted, writer, he penned a number of Imperial titles including standards such as ‘Lavinia’ and ‘I Live My Life’.  He worked solidly throughout the fifties, usually under Bartholomew’s aegis, recording for King, Waldorf and Decca.  In 1953, with Ray Charles on piano and Edgar Blanchard and the Gondoliers providing additional support, he cut ‘I’m Gonna Cross That River’ and, in 1955, he brought out ‘Jam Up’ for Atlantic.  It narrowly failed to chart nationally but it sold well, being reissued twice.  It stayed in Ridgley’s act for the next forty years, occasionally being re-cut and rearranged.  He then moved on with his band, the Untouchables, to Al Sivers’ Herald label, where ‘When I Meet The Girl’ was a popular choice for New Orleans’ denizens.  In between the constant recording and playing, the Untouchables took up residency at the Dew Drop Inn, where they backed just about all the visiting artists, including Sam & Dave, Clyde McPhatter and Little Willie John.  Following the death of Chuck Willis (in 1958), the original and most would say the only ‘King Of The Stroll’, Ric marketed Ridgley as the ‘New King Of The Stroll’ on his label debut, ‘Is It True’ c/w ‘Let’s Talk It Over’ (#968).  A big New Orleans record, it was the first of a series of memorable quality releases on Ric including ‘Please Hurry Home’ (#973), a fabulous ‘Double Eyed Whammy’ (#978) - a song later covered by Freddie King as the instrumental, ‘San-Ho-Zay’ - ‘The Girl From Kooka Monga’ (#984), ‘My Ordinary Girl’ (#990) and ‘I’ve Heard That Story Before’ (#994).  The top side to ‘The Girl From Kooka Monga’ was ‘In The Same Old Way’, another of Ridgley’s most popular records and his fifth release for the label, coming out in the summer of 1961.  The record was promoted heavily on New Orleans radio and sold very well.  The sound is a typical New Orleans two-beat syncopation but with a distinctive soul feel to it.  Beyond New Orleans, it was a hit in Jamaica, influencing the new Ska sound that was taking hold in the newly independent country.  It would surely have been a bigger hit but Ruffino was disinclined to lease it beyond New Orleans, no doubt wary after the disaster of ‘You Talk Too Much’.  Ruffino next had Tommy cut a catchy Earl King song, ‘My Ordinary Girl’ but neither it nor ‘She’s Got What It Takes’ on the flip was very successful.  The problem for Ridgley was that public tastes were changing rapidly and, almost overnight, the forty-something Ridgley was passé.  Following Ric’s demise in 1963, he recorded ‘I Want Some Money Baby’ for the Watch subsidiary, Johen.  An outstanding soul record, it was poorly distributed by London and failed to get the promotion it deserved.  Ridgley’s attempt to adapt to the new soul style has left a legacy of stunning soul records, including the deep soul diamonds, ‘Did You Tell Him’ on White Cliffs and ‘I’m Asking For Forgiveness’ on River City, the equally beautiful ‘Live While You Can’ on his own Ridge-Way label and a dynamic dance record on International City, ‘My Love Is Getting Stronger’.  None of these, nor two he cut for Cinderella or for Eddie Bo’s Blue Jay label, made it out of the environs of the Big Easy.  Ridgley never had the major hit he desired but he carried on releasing material, including a series of albums, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, whilst continuing to perform both in the city and internationally until his death from lung cancer on August 11, 1999.

 

Ridgley was instrumental in bringing a young Irma Thomas to the Company in 1959.  She described the series of events to ‘In The Basement’ in September 2002, for the feature which appeared in issue #28.  Ridgley had realised Irma’s potential when he saw her at the Pimlico Club and introduced her to Ruffino, who signed her on the spot.  Her initial cut was Dorothy LaBostrie’s ‘Don’t Mess With My Man’ (Ron 328), a somewhat sassy song for a young sixteen-year-old to sing.  In Irma’s case though, she had already gained plenty of life experiences, including the birth of a child when she was just fifteen years of age.  According to Irma, the  record was learned, recorded and released within a few days of her introduction to Ron.  It was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio with Eddie Bo assigned to the rôle of arranger.  It hit the r&b chart in May 1959, peaking at #22.  The follow up, ‘A Good Man’ (co-written with Thomas) c/w ‘I May Be Wrong’ was also arranged by Bo but, as beautifully sung and produced as it was, it was a tad too similar to the first hit to be memorable.  Thomas was wanting out of Ron by that stage anyway as she had  been approached by Joe Banashak’s Minit Records to record for them.  (It transpired that she had already been turned down once by Banashak on the grounds of her youth, prior to introduction by Ridgley.)  It was, of course, at Minit Records that Irma cut the two records that principally launched her career, ‘It’s Raining’ and ‘Ruler Of My Heart’, which were produced by Allen Toussaint.  Although Thomas had left Ruffino’s organisation after a few months, she emphasised her fond recollections of that first recording session...  “It was fun.  Think about this!  Here’s a young girl, a young lady as you could say, doing something that she thought was a game really.   I’m in there having fun doing what I enjoy doing.  Ironically, I knew how to do it even though I had never done it before.  They told me to get in there and sing the song and I had enough natural talent as far as timing and everything was concerned that I was able to pull it off without a lot of stop and start and repeat and what have you.  So I just considered myself a blessed talent.  I guess I had listened to enough records and, by doing that and listening and learning from records that you do have to wait for a certain beat before you come back in on a song and stuff like that, so the technical aspects I just learned by rote as you would say.  And that just spilled over into the recording session to make it come off very well.  You know, you don’t realise it at the time you’re doing it that you’re doing it right but no one complained so I assumed I did everything right.”

 

The other major NOLA artist who recorded for Ron was Professor Longhair - born Henry Roeland Bird on December 19, 1918 - who cut his celebrated ‘Go To The Mardi Gras’ for the label in 1959.  He remains an inescapable presence in New Orleans over thirty years after his death at the age of 61 in 1980, his presence in the City’s history continuing to be celebrated, even after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  One of New Orleans’ premier venues, Tipitina’s is named after one of his big hits and the Professor Longhair name continues to have annual prominence at Mardi Gras, partly as a result of his Ron anthem.  In a city where piano players such as James Booker, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, Fats Domino, Dr John and Allen Toussaint are revered, ‘Fess’ seems to stand above them all.  In part, this is due to his unique and distinctive piano style.  This was down to the fact he learned on an abandoned piano that only had a certain number of keys and, in order to get a sound, he had to pound some of the keys as they were, without hammers.  He was highly musical and, overcoming an extremely deprived childhood, he started to earn a living as a piano player just before the Second World War, when he was already in his thirties.  His big breakthrough arrived in 1949, when his recording of ‘Bald Head’ for the Dallas-based Star Talent label reached #5 on the national r&b chart.  In 1954, Longhair cut ‘Tipitina’, a record that influenced the next generation of New Orleans musicians and cemented his reputation as one of the great piano players.  Unfortunately, ‘Fess’ fell foul of the musicians’ union in New Orleans and throughout the later part of the ’50s, he was unable to work the city and was forced to scratch out a living elsewhere in the South.  How one of the true greats of New Orleans music reached this situation is for a different article but it was to Ruffino’s advantage, as he joined Ron in 1959.  He was backed on the record by Dr John’s band that held Longhair in such high esteem that they quit secure jobs with Roy Brown to play just a single gig with him.  Dr John recalled “‘Fess’ just wanted the band to rawmp [sic] and frolic - just to get what he meant by rawmp and frolic was the whole thing, to get to the spirit playing when a cat played solo, the band had to shift gears and push the guy harder and harder.”  Dr John put that experience to good effect in 1959 when he was behind the console at Ron for the definitive version of ‘Go To The Mardi Gras’ - the one that they play each year when Mardi Gras comes around.  It was part of a single session at Ron that included ‘Cuttin’ Out’, his only other release on the label.

 

Longhair’s and Tommy Ridgley’s former tenor sax man, Robert Parker, also had the opportunity to open his solo account at Ron with ‘All Nite Long’ (Ron 327).  An excellent instrumental, it gave Parker the opportunity to work the clubs along the Gulf Coast with his band, the Royals.  After one further release on Ron and with the NOLA music scene in the doldrums as the British invasion took over the club scene, Parker dropped out to work as a porter at the Charity Hospital.  Fortunately, this proved a temporary situation as he signed for Wardell Quezergue’s Nola label in 1964, initially as a session musician.  In 1965, he cut a demo, ‘Barefootin’’ that was intended for other artists.  When no one was interested, Quezergue put out it out anyway, giving Parker a huge hit and the trademark song by which he is remembered.  There was to be only one further hit from the man, ‘Tip Toe’ but Parker’s place in New Orleans history was assured. 


Another artist who started his recording career working with Eddie Bo on the Ron label, Warren Lee failed to achieve the success of Robert Parker but his labours for Ron were certainly worthwhile.  He was playing the Dew Drop Inn as Warren Lee Taylor when Eddie Bo approached him to record for Ron.  He accepted and the session was cut at Cosimo Matassa’s, using two of the singer’s own tunes, ‘Unemployed’ and ‘The Uh-Huh’, which became the a- and b-sides of his first single (Ron 151), released under the name of Warren Lee.  ‘Unemployed’, a tale about the trials of being at the bottom of the economic ladder, is a typical New Orleans two-beat tune of the period.  The flip, which is hampered by a ridiculous title, is a more uptempo affair.  Neither side is memorable but they did enough for a second single, ‘Anna (Stay With Me)’, clearly an answer record to Arthur Alexander’s hit, ‘Anna (Go With Him)’.  This came out on Ruffino’s new label, the little used Soundex - and one probably not named after a further son!  In common with Parker, Warren Lee moved on to Nola in 1964, cutting the superior ‘Anna (We’re Gonna Get Married)’, before joining Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint’s production company, where he had releases on Tou-Sea, Deesu  and Wand.  He also recorded for Round and Jin, cutting his final record for Matassa’s Choctaw imprint in 1974, before severe ill health intervened in the form of a stroke that left him in a wheelchair for some months and curtailed his recording career.

 

One other notable New Orleans artist made a brief appearance on Ron.  This was the songwriter and performer, Chris Kenner, forever associated with one song: the anthemic ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’.  Its success has tended to overshadow his other work but he was so much more than a one-trick pony.  He was born in 1929 in the farming area of Kenner, LA, just beyond the environs of New Orleans and moved to city in his late teens, finding work as a longshoreman in the city docks and singing part-time in a gospel quartet with Earl King.  A stocky, strong-framed individual, he was nicknamed ‘The Bear’ and, like Ernie K-Doe, he fought as a boxer to earn extra money.  He also developed a formidable drinking habit.  His first success arrived in 1955, when the New York-based Baton Records scouted him in New Orleans and had him cut ‘Don’t Pin That Charge On Me’.  Although the sales were modest, it allowed Kenner an opportunity to audition at Imperial Records, from which came ‘Sick And Tired’, Kenner’s first big record (#13 r&b) and was the ticket to a life on the road.  However, Kenner was not apparently a confident performer, allowing the alcohol to occasionally overwhelm his performance as he frequently forgot the lyrics.  ‘Sick And Tired’ was later covered in 1958 by Fats Domino, who had a similarly successful national hit with it (#14 r&b).  Kenner meanwhile was being dropped by his label, who had had enough of his unpredictable behaviour.  It turned out a premature decision because Kenner still had a couple of aces to play.  After a one-off for Wallace Davenport’s Pontchartrain label, he had a single solid release on Ron, ‘Rocket To the Moon’ c/w ‘Life Is A Struggle’ (#335).  Later, in 1961 he reapproached Joe Banashak at Imperial, who assigned him to a new label, Valiant.  Kenner moved back into the studio to work with Allen Toussaint on another big record, ‘I Like It Like That’.  It came out on the renamed Instant label - after realisation that a Valiant label was already set up in California - eventually reaching #2 on both the r&b and pop charts and selling in excess of one-million-and-a-half records.  Success did not change Kenner; he just carried on drinking, exhibiting behaviour that tends this scribe to wonder if he was suffering from a form of bipolar disorder.  In 1962, Kenner wrote ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’.  It has always appeared a strange title, since at no point does Kenner use it on the record.  The explanation came to light many years later when the masters were replayed - a ten-second introduction that did contain the phrase had been omitted from the released version.  It was another substantial hit for Kenner but a bigger one for others...  Montel Michelle Records issued a popular version by Gee Gee Shinn & the Boogie Kings that did pretty well in the Louisiana hinterland but most people associate the song with Wilson Pickett’s Atlantic recording, which topped the r&b charts and scored #6 pop in the summer of 1966.  (A grateful Atlantic agreed to release an album on Chris Kenner, containing most of the Instant labours he had done with Allen Toussaint.)  Kenner’s final release for Instant, ‘Sad Mistake’, proved a portentous title as Kenner’s recording career was brought to a full-stop after he was sent down for three years for the statutory rape of a minor.  Although he went back into Senator Jones’ Hep’ Me studio in 1974, Kenner was by then a broken man, living on borrowed time.  The end came around January 25, 1976 when his body was discovered at the house he was renting.  He had suffered a massive heart attack and lain dead for several days before being found.  He was just 46.  

 

The guitarist Eddie Lang, who was born Eddie Langlois in the Crescent City on January 15, 1936, had a career that included ten 45s over a period of twenty-two years.  By the early ’50s, he was working as second guitar in Eddie ‘Guitar Slim’ Jones’ band when he had the opportunity to record as Little Eddie for Bullet.  Two further cuts - for RPM - followed before his sessions in 1959 for Ron that resulted in ‘On My Own’ c/w ‘Easy Rockin’’ (#320), quickly followed  by ‘Troubles Troubles’ c/w ‘She’s Mine All Mine’ (Ron 324).  ‘Troubles Troubles’ is a a fine, somewhat languid NOLA blues.  Lang has a very distinctive delivery and it is possible to imagine some poor unfortunate gradually sinking into a trough of whiskey in one of the seedier bars in the French Quarter.  One can almost feel the singer slipping further down his bar stool as he slowly gets inebriated.  Neither Ron records sold well and, after a single moonlighting appearance for Flame, where he was billed as Sly Dell, it would be a further seven years before he waxed another solo record - for the Banashak-owned Seven B label.  ‘The Love I Have For You’ and the follow up, ‘The Sad One’, an outstanding deep soul cut, proved to be his finest recordings.  He later waxed for Superdome, before ill-health forced him to retire from playing.  He died at home in Slidell, LA, presumably the source of the Sly Dell pseudonym, in 1985.

 

There was also a cast of other players at Ric and Ron who deserve some reference...  The tenor sax player, James Rivers excelled on the instrumental, two-part ‘The Blue Eagle’ (Ron 333), while ‘We Got A Party’ (Ron 340) by the Party Boys is a neat dancer.  Mention should also be made of Bobby Mitchell & the Toppers.  Mitchell, born in the Algiers neighbourhood of New Orleans, arrived with his group at Ron after nine 45s for Imperial and delivered two decent outings in ‘Send Me Your Picture’ c/w ‘You’re Doing Me Wrong’ (Ron 337) and ‘Mama Don’t Allow’ c/w ‘There’s Only One Of You’ (Ron 342).  They sold well in New Orleans and resulted in Imperial issuing a further two records by Mitchell.  (However, of all Mitchell’s recordings, the tough, rollicking slab of r&b that is ‘Walking In Circles’, from Rip in 1963, is the one to own.)  Joe Morris’ energetic guitar-led r&b rocker, ‘Git Back’ remains something of a novelty record that the listener is likely to love - or hate.  Whilst at fifty years’ distance it has been hard to confirm, this is probably the same Joe Morris who played with Clifton Chenier for many years.  Morris, whose real name was Joseph Brouchet, hailed from Crowley, LA.  His guitar playing has stylings of Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, with whom he performed.  The brother of Jerry Brouchet, drummer with Zydeco major, Clifton Chenier, as ‘Jumpin’ Joe Morris he later played with Chenier for some fifteen years, mainly as a bass player.

 

The third label in the Ric/Ron stable was the previously mentioned Soundex.  The Soundex label was a partnership between Joe Ruffino and Mississippi-born Robert Echols, who was better known by his dee-jay name, ‘Bob Robin’.  In 1960, he migrated to New Orleans as a disc jockey for WTIX.  He later worked as a producer for the International City label that cut ‘Biggest Fool In Town’ for Chick Carbo and Tommy Ridgley’s ‘My Love Is Getting Stronger’.  Both these cuts were recorded at the Grits And Gravy Studio in Clinton, MS, owned by brothers, Cliff and Ed Thomas.  The neglected Soundex imprint seems to have been used as a soul vehicle for new young artists and producers.  Among them was Bogalusa, LA-born Hershell E. Dwellingham, who began his musical career as a drummer with the Rhythm Aces in 1961.  In 1962, he approached Joe Ruffino with a view to producing some of the songs he had written.  Ruffino, who was at this stage in poor health, agreed assigning Dwellingham to Soundex, where he wrote and produced the impressive ‘Come On And Tell Her’ recorded by Benny Freeman.  Dwellingham, who later in his career spent time with Weather Report, was involved in a number of Soundex productions and worked with Dr John on Ronnie Barron’s ‘It’s All In The Past’, before he headed to Boston, where he attended music college.  While in Boston he started up My Records, where he wrote and produced sides on Billy Thompson and the superb ‘Young Girl’ by Frank Lynch.  (The sad story of Lynch’s demise at the hands of the Boston police can be found on John Ridley’s website - www.sirshambling.com - where there is an entry dedicated to the man.)  Dwellingham spent most of the ’70s and ’80s working at major studios in Boston and New York and, according to his website, he is currently back home in Bogalusa.

 

Joe Ruffino, who had survived a heart attack early in 1962, suffered a second and this time fatal

attack at the end of the year and, whilst the schedule of releases continued into 1963, the Ric, Ron and Soundex labels duly folded.  It had been a hectic four years, with a total of seventy singles and one album.  Ruffino, for all his manifest faults, never compromised on quality and many of his artists probably recorded their best work under his direction.  Ruffino’s main failing was in his inability to find quality distributors who could take the better records to national prominence.  There were certainly opportunities but, after the disaster of ‘You Talk Too Much’, Ruffino was excessively cautious.  The other observation is that he had a strange aversion to recording women.  Irma Thomas and Martha Nelson had just six issues between them and, aside from a Soundex 45 by one Barbara Palms, there were no others.  Summing-up Joe Ruffino, Tommy Ridgley said:  “He was stubborn and had his own way of doing things but he could recognise talent when he saw it.  He never cut corners in the studio like a lot of other guys and he worked his tail off when your record came out.  It was a small company but it was very professional.  All of our records were great.”  The labels and some of the contracts passed to Joe Assunto and, in recent years, there have been several compilations of Ron and Ric material.  There is some confusion over the use of the Ron imprint, as a number of 45s continued to appear after the supposed end of the label.  These included a previously-unissued Johnny Adams 45 that came out in 1964/65, ‘I Want To Do Everything For You’ c/w ‘Lonely Drifter’.  It originated exclusively from Assunto’s One Stop Record Shop, where Assunto continued to press a number of Ric and Ron popular sellers using a red and black Ron logo design.  These continued for a number of years and include Ron originals such as ‘Don't Mess With My Man’ but also Ric examples such as the Mardi Gras favourites, ‘Carnival Time’ by Al Johnson and Professor Longhair’s ‘Go To The Mardi Gras’, which can also often be found in the red and black version.


This article, with minor subsequent modification, first appeared in ‘In The Basement’, issue #61.  © Basement Group, 2011, © ‘The Soul Basement’, 2014


Artist photos, top to bottom:  Johnny Adams, Eddie Bo, Tommy Ridgley, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner.


‘You Talk Too Much : The Ric & Ron Story, Vol.1’ is scheduled for release by UK Ace Records on February 24, 2014.



Acknowledgements from Greg Burgess:  Bill Dahl, John Ridley, Clive Richardson, Dan Phillips’ Home of The Groove, Don Snowden, Red Kelly, John Broven, Jeff Hannusch, David Cole


Acknowledgements from ‘The Soul Basement’:  Neil Scapelhorn @ Ace Records

 

Sources:

‘Record Makers And Breakers, Voices of The Independent Rock’n’Roll Pioneers’, John Broven - University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-03290-5

‘Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans’, John Broven - Pelican Press, Gretna, Louisiana, ISBN 0-88289-433-1

‘I Hear You Knocking: The Sound Of New Orleans Rhythm And Blues’, Jeff Hannusch - Swallow Publications, Ville Platte, Louisiana, ISBN 0-9614245-0-8

‘The Soul Of New Orleans: A Legacy Of Rhythm And Blues’, Jeff Hannusch - Swallow Publications, Ville Platte, Louisiana, ISBN 0-9614245-8-3

‘Irma Thomas : Soul Queen Of New Orleans’, David Cole - ‘In The Basement’ #28